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Musical instrument

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A musical instrument is a device constructed or modified for the purpose of making music. In principle, anything that produces sound can serve as a musical instrument. The term "musical instrument", however, is generally reserved for items that have a specific musical purpose such as a piano. The academic study of musical instruments is called organology.

Archeology and anthropology

Scholars agree that there are no completely reliable methods of determining the exact chronology of musical instruments across cultures. Comparing and organizing instruments based on their complexity is misleading, since advancements in musical instruments have sometimes reduced complexity. For example, construction of early slit drums involved felling and hollowing out large trees; later slit drums were made by opening bamboo stalks, a much simpler task. It is likewise misleading to arrange the development of musical instruments by workmanship since all cultures advance at different levels and have access to different materials. For example, anthropologists attempting to compare musical instruments made by two cultures that existed at the same time but who differed in organization, culture, and handicraft cannot determine which instruments are more "primitive". Ordering instruments by geography is also partially unreliable, as one cannot determine when and how cultures contacted one another and shared knowledge. German musicologist Curt Sachs, one of the most prominent musicologists in modern times, proposed that a geographical chronology is preferable, however, due to its limited subjectivity.

Archaeological evidence of musical instruments was discovered in excavations at the Royal Cemetery in the Sumerian city of Ur. These instruments include nine lyres, two harps, a silver double flute, sistra and cymbals. These excavations, carried out by Leonard Woolley in the 1920s, uncovered non-degradable fragments of instruments and the voids left by the degraded segments which, together, have been used to reconstruct them. The graves to which these instruments were related have been carbon dated to between 2600 and 2500 BCE, providing evidence that these instruments were being used in Sumeria by this time.

A cuneiform tablet from Nippur in Mesopotamia dated to 2000 BCE indicates the names of strings on the lyre and represents the earliest known example of music notation.


Until the 19th century CE, written musical histories began with mythological accounts of how musical instruments were invented. Such accounts included Jubal, descendant of Cain and "father of all such as handle the harp and the organ", Pan, inventor of the panpipes, and Mercury, who is said to have made a dried tortoise shell into the first lyre. Modern histories have replaced such mythology with anthropologically proven information. Scholars agree that there was no definitive "invention" of the musical instrument since the definition of the term "musical instrument" is completely subjective to both the scholar and the would-be inventor. For example, a Homo habilis slapping his body could be the makings of a musical instrument regardless of the being's intent.

Among the first devices external to the human body considered to be instruments are rattles, stampers, and various drums. These earliest instruments evolved due to the human motor impulse to add sound to emotional movements such as dancing. Eventually, some cultures assigned ritual functions to their musical instruments. Those cultures developed more complex percussion instruments and other instruments such as ribbon reeds, flutes, and trumpets. Some of these labels carry far different connotations from those used in modern day; early flutes and trumpets are so-labeled for their basic operation and function rather than any resemblance to modern instruments. Among early cultures for whom drums developed ritual, even sacred importance are the Chukchi people of the Russian Far East, the indigenous people of Melanesia, and many cultures of East Africa. One East African tribe, the Wahinda, even believed that seeing a drum would be fatal to any person other than the sultan. The bagpipe was an old North African instrument used by the destitute Berbers to collect charity. Nero, the Roman Emperor, imported it to Europe.

Humans eventually developed the concept of using musical instruments for producing a melody. Until this time in the evolutions of musical instruments, melody was common only in singing. Similar to the process of reduplication in language, instrument players first developed repetition and then arrangement. An early form of melody was produced by pounding two stamping tubes of slightly different sizes—one tube would produce a "clear" sound and the other would answer with a "darker" sound. Such instrument pairs also included bullroarers, slit drums, shell trumpets, and skin drums. Cultures who used these instrument pairs associated genders with them; the "father" was the bigger or more energetic instrument, while the "mother" was the smaller or duller instrument. Musical instruments existed in this form for thousands of years before patterns of three or more tones would evolve in the form of the earliest xylophone. Xylophones originated in the mainland and archipelago of Southeast Asia, eventually spreading to Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Along with xylophones, which ranged from simple sets of three "leg bars" to carefully-tuned sets of parallel bars, various cultures developed instruments such as the ground harp, ground zither, musical bow, and jaw harp.

Images of musical instruments begin to appear in Mesopotamian artifacts in 2800 BCE or earlier. Beginning around 2000 BCE, Sumerian and Babylonian cultures began delineating two distinct classes of musical instruments due to division of labor and the evolving class system. Popular instruments, simple and playable by anyone, evolved differently from professional instruments whose development focused on effectiveness and skill. Despite this development, very few musical instruments have been recovered in Mesopotamia. Scholars must rely on artifacts and cuneiform texts written in Sumerian or Akkadian to reconstruct the early history of musical instruments in Mesopotamia. Even the process of assigning names to these instruments is challenging since there is no clear distinction among various instruments and the words used to describe them. Although Sumerian and Babylonian artists mainly depicted ceremonial instruments, historians have been able to distinguish six idiophones used in early Mesopotamia: concussion clubs, clappers, sistra, bells, cymbals, and rattles. The sistra are of particular interest because similar designs have been found in far-reaching places such as Tbilisi, Georgia and among the Native American Yaqui tribe. The people of Mesopotamia preferred stringed instruments to any other, as evidenced by their proliferation in Mesopotamian figurines, plaques, and seals. Innumerable varieties of harps are depicted, as well as lyres and lutes, the forerunner of modern stringed instruments such as the violin.

Musical instruments used by the Egyptian culture before 2700 BCE bore striking similarity to those of Mesopotamia, leading historians to conclude that the civilizations must have been in contact with one another. Sachs notes that Egypt did not possess any instruments that the Sumerian culture did not also possess. However, by 2700 BCE the cultural contacts seem to have dissipated; the lyre, a prominent ceremonial instrument in Sumer, did not appear in Egypt for another 800 years. Clappers and concussion sticks appear on Egyptian vases as early as 3000 BCE. The civilization also made use of sistra, vertical flutes, double clarinets, arched and angular harps, and various drums. Little history is available in the period between 2700 BCE and 1500 BCE, as Egypt (and indeed, Babylon) entered a long violent period of war and destruction. This period saw the Kassites destroy the Babylonian empire in Mesopotamia and the Hyksos destroy the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. When the Pharaohs of Egypt conquered Southwest Asia in around 1500 BCE, the cultural ties to Mesopotamia were renewed and Egypt's musical instruments also reflected heavy influence from Asiatic cultures. Under their new cultural influences, the people of the New Kingdom began using oboes, trumpets, lyres, lutes, castanets, and cymbals.


All musical instruments fall under the classification of one of four types of instrument, brass, woodwinds, percussion, and strings.


A trumpet, perhaps the most famous brass instrument.

A brass instrument is a musical instrument whose tone is produced by vibration of the lips as the player blows into a tubular resonator. There are many brass instruments, including the trombone, trumpet, tuba, baritone, euphonium, french horn, flugelhorn, sousaphone, mellophone, saxhorn, cornet, sackbut, bazooka, bugle, cornett, serpent, ophicleide and the keyed trumpet.


A woodwind instrument is a musical instrument which produces sound when the player blows air against an edge of, or opening in, the instrument, causing the air to vibrate within a resonator. Most commonly, the player blows against a thin piece of wood called a reed. Woodwind instruments include the Bansuri, dizi, flute, fife, Piccolo, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, bass clarinet, panpipes, and the double reed oboe and english horn.


A string instrument is a musical instrument that produces sound by means of vibrating strings. Common string instruments include the piano, violin, viola, cello, bass, mandolin, guitar, sitar, harp, and the banjo.


A percussion instrument is any object which produces a sound by being hit with an implement, shaken, rubbed, scraped, or by any other action which sets the object into vibration. Some percussion instruments are the xylophone, piano, triangle, snare and bass drums, cymbals, and anything that can be hit, for example, a desk could be a percussion instrument.


There are many different methods of classifying musical instruments. All methods examine some combination of the physical properties of the instrument, how music is performed on the instrument, the range of the instrument, and the instrument's place in an orchestra or other ensemble. Some methods arise as a result of disagreements between experts on how instruments should be classified. While a complete survey of the systems of classifications is beyond the scope of this article, a summary of major systems follows.

Ancient systems

An ancient system, dating from at least the 1st century BC, divides instruments into four main classification groups: instruments where the sound is produced by vibrating strings; instruments where the sound is produced by vibrating columns of air; percussion instruments made of wood or metal; and percussion instruments with skin heads, or drums. Victor-Charles Mahillon later adopted a system very similar to this. He was the curator of the musical instrument collection of the conservatoire in Brussels, and for the 1888 catalogue of the collection divided instruments into four groups: string instruments, wind instruments, percussion instruments, and drums.


Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs later took up the ancient scheme and published an extensive new scheme for classification in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie in 1914. Their scheme is widely used today, and is most often known as the Hornbostel-Sachs system.

The original Sachs-Hornbostel system classified instruments into four main groups:

  • Chordophones, such as the piano or cello, produce sound by vibrating strings; they are sorted into zithers, keyboard chordophones, lyres, harps, lutes, and bowed chordophones.
  • Aerophones, such as the pipe organ or oboe, produce sound by vibrating columns of air; they are sorted into free aerophones, flutes, organs, reedpipes, and lip-vibrated aerophones.
  • Idiophones, such as the xylophone and rattle, produce sound by vibrating themselves; they are sorted into concussion, percussion, shaken, scraped, split, and plucked idiophones.
  • Membranophones, such as drums or kazoos, produce sound by a vibrating membrane; they are sorted into predrum membranophones, tubular drums, friction idiophones, kettledrums, friction drums, and mirlitons.

Sachs later added a fifth category, electrophones, such as theremins, which produce sound by electronic means. Within each category are many subgroups. The system has been criticised and revised over the years, but remains widely used by ethnomusicologists and organologists.


Andre Schaeffner, a curator at the Musée de l'Homme, disagreed with the Hornbostel-Sachs system and developed his own system in 1932. Schaeffner believed that the physical structure of a musical instrument, rather than its playing method, should determine its classification. His system divided instruments into two categories: instruments with solid, vibrating bodies and instruments containing vibrating air.


Western instruments are also often classified by their musical range in comparison with other instruments in the same family. These terms are named after singing voice classifications:

Some instruments fall into more than one category: for example, the cello may be considered either tenor or bass, depending on how its music fits into the ensemble, and the trombone may be alto, tenor, or bass and the French horn, bass, baritone, tenor, or alto, depending on which range it is played.

Many instruments have their range as part of their name: soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, baritone horn, alto flute, bass flute, alto recorder, bass guitar, etc. Additional adjectives describe instruments above the soprano range or below the bass, for example: sopranino saxophone, contrabass clarinet.

When used in the name of an instrument, these terms are relative, describing the instrument's range in comparison to other instruments of its family and not in comparison to the human voice range or instruments of other families. For example, a bass flute's range is from C3 to F♯6, while a bass clarinet plays about one octave lower.


Musical instrument construction is a specialized trade that requires years of training, practice, and sometimes an apprenticeship. Most makers of musical instruments specialize in one genre of instruments; for example, a luthier makes only stringed instruments. Some make only one type of instrument such as a piano.

User interfaces

Regardless of how the sound in an instrument is produced, many musical instruments have a keyboard as the user-interface. Keyboard instruments are any instruments that are played with a musical keyboard. Every key generates one or more sounds; most keyboard instruments have extra means (pedals for a piano, stops for an organ) to manipulate these sounds. They may produce sound by wind being fanned (organ) or pumped (accordion), vibrating strings either hammered (piano) or plucked ( harpsichord), by electronic means (synthesizer) or in some other way. Sometimes, instruments that do not usually have a keyboard, such as the glockenspiel, are fitted with one. Though they have no moving parts and are struck by mallets held in the player's hands, they have the same physical arrangement of keys and produce soundwaves in a similar manner.

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